Welcome to the Young Company Interview Series
If you look at the companies and industries that have been disrupted the most over the past five years, it has been from young companies who have forced bigger brands to not only take a look at their operations but start thinking more like beginners instead of experts.
The same goes for the direct selling industry. Companies like Le-Vel and Pruvit have upended the notions of needing a home office, and have leveraged social media by through the telling of impactful stories. New companies with new ideas, deserve our attention. That’s what DSN intends to accomplish with our Young Company Interview series. There are a lot of companies in the direct selling space just starting out that have good ideas—ideas many mid-level to large companies can learn from. Gaya Samarsingha, CEO of Kalaia is someone whom you will learn a few things from.
Born and raised in a small town in Sri Lanka, Gaya had a very humble upbringing. Thanks to her parents, Gaya had the opportunity to come to the United States to pursue her higher education. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems from Utah State University and an MBA from Iowa State University.
During her decade-long career in the direct selling channel, Gaya has worked with mature billion-dollar companies to newer and smaller companies that are going through hyper-growth stage both in traditional direct selling and party plan structures.
Founded: February 2018
Headquarters: South Jordan, Utah
Top Executive: Gaya Samarasingha, CEO
Products: Skin Care
I caught up with Gaya recently to chat all things Kalaia, the state of the industry, and much more. Here is our discussion.
Todd Eliason, Publisher & Editor in Chief
Is Kalaia a party plan or a network marketing-based model?
Gaya: I would say we are a hybrid of the two. I’ve been in the direct selling channel pretty close to a decade now and have worked for several different companies. I’ve seen the strengths in both models. We do have some aspects of a party plan because a lot of our Brand Partners sell the product either one-on-one or in a setting that we call “Socials” where they are able to get the product in front of people. At the same time, we have a Success Plan (compensation plan) that pays well for those who are building a business and going after a full-time income. That’s why I say we’re a hybrid. I took the things I liked from both models and incorporated them into Kalaia.
What does Kalaia mean?
Gaya: We did a whole video about how the brand came to be, but essentially, it is the combination of two words. One is “Kalon,” which means that beauty is more than skin deep, internal beauty of a person. “Gaia” means Mother Earth, which resonates with the ingredient story, because we’re all about natural ingredients from around the world.
Tell us about your startup phase as far as operations and infrastructure. How many employees do you have?
Gaya: We have two of us who work full time, but we have several others that are contracting and on retainers, which works well for us as a startup. We use the same people over and over again, so they are an extension of our brand and our team. They are invested in Kalaia, and they know our brand in and out, which makes it easy to work with them. I self-funded the whole company, so I’m making sure we have a very lean infrastructure at this point.
The beauty space is a very crowded space, as you probably know. What are you bringing to the market that is unique and different?
Gaya: Two things. We have combined unique natural ingredients from around the world, ingredients that have been used in skin care rituals for thousands of years, to create our products.
We also offer one of the most efficacious yet simple skin care regimens out there that works for all skin types and skin concerns. People don’t have time to spend hours using a 5-7 step skin care regimen every morning and night. That’s why customers don’t see results with most products because they don’t stay consistent. Also, as you age, you have more than one skin concern you want to resolve.
We offer a simple 3 step system that is made with safe and natural ingredients; and effective for all skin concerns and different skin types.
You have worked in a variety of positions with many of the top companies in the direct selling channel. How has your experience in these positions prepared you for being a CEO of your own company?
Gaya: Most of my experience in the industry come from international expansion. I’ve launched and managed markets in five continents and each one is different. When you launch a new market, you touch every aspect of the business from legal to operations to sales, marketing and field development. It is not much different from starting up a new company. I think that experience came in real handy for me as I launched Kalaia.
What part of the job of CEO has been the biggest challenge for you?
Gaya: The funding process was the biggest challenge and the surprise for me as I launched Kalaia. I guess I didn’t realize even with all that experience and the connections, how hard it would be to find funding as a female entrepreneur. But those challenges I faced turned out to be a blessing, I decided to fund the company on my own. Of course, that changed the initial business plan and the forecast, but it is lot less stressful knowing I don’t have to answer to anyone and I’m able to have the patience to grow the company the way I want.
Was there a certain roadblock during the startup process that really was particularly challenging?
Gaya: I think one of the most challenging parts was getting the products ready and managing all the moving parts with new vendors and a tight timeline. Of course, some parts of the manufacturing process were a learning curve for me. I had to be very hands-on, and It was frustrating at times. Though we had to move the launch date a little bit, due to the holidays and things like that, we made it work. At the end of the day, it was a great launch.
What were your early benchmarks for success? What did you measure against so you knew that, “Hey, it’s hard, but we’re improving.”
Gaya: I think hitting that first hundred brand partners, getting them onboarded and motivated to grow their businesses was the first real success benchmark. You can have all kinds of numbers and predictions, but everything is just a bit of a guess in the beginning, right? And we have attracted a great group of people who have never done direct sales before, so everything is new and fresh for them. They are very coachable and are willing to do what it takes because they have no frame of reference from a past opportunity.
Obviously, that inexperience comes with its own challenges. They didn’t come to us with an established network or the knowledge of the industry, but their passion for the product and a ground floor opportunity has made up for a lot of the inexperience. And today, we are seeing many of them become leaders right before our eyes. They’re feeling confident about the company, the product, and most importantly in their ability to lead and grow their teams.
You are a very purpose-driven company, tell a little about your Kalaia Cares program.
Gaya: When I was about five years old, my mother quit her job in Sri Lanka to start her own company. Obviously, they were living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have any savings. But she was ambitious and wanted to start a company. Honestly, I didn’t know this story until I was ready to quit my job and start Kalaia. When I called her to tell I was following in her footsteps, she was so excited and told me her experience in starting a company where she applied for $100 loan and got rejected from the bank.
But she somehow figured it out, obviously, because she went on to build several successful businesses in Sri Lanka. That was 30 some years ago, in a developing country where women didn’t drive much let alone start successful businesses. She overcame all of that.
Fast forward 30 years later to 2018. Like my mother, I was trying to start my own company in the United States and faced the same challenges finding funding, even with my formal education and experience in the industry.
I came across a statistic that said in the U.S. women are 60 percent less likely to get funding for any business compared to men. The struggle to find funding early on gave me the idea to give one percent of all sales to the Kalaia Cares charitable program, which helps fund different entrepreneurs through microloans across the globe. To date, we have given out three loans to female entrepreneurs in New York, the Philippines and El Salvador.
Both our Brand Partners and customers have really resonated with this program and they want to be part of a greater cause. We’ve had people become Brand Partners just because they fell in love with that aspect of the business and the brand.
What would you say is your leadership style?
Gaya: I would never ask anything of my team that I’m not willing to do myself. No task is too big for me given I started my career at an entry-level position not so long ago, and I’ve touched all facets of the business, so that’s one. You can almost call me a workaholic. You don’t get to grow a successful company without being one. But at the same time, I’m big on teaching and coaching people. I love working with people who are ambitious; and willing to learn and grow. We work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun doing it. That’s why doing what we are
passionate about with the people we love and having fun is one of our core values.
What kind of tools do you offer your brand partners to help in building their business?
Gaya: We offer a business kit for $199 which gives our brand partners everything they need to get started including all four of our products. They also get some product and opportunity brochures. The business kit also includes a beautiful Kalaia branded tote bag. We are very proud of our brand, and we wanted them to have a branded item they carry around from day one. Brand partners have access to a back-office and a replicated website free of charge.
As far as training goes, we have created a program called K30. From day one all the way to day 30, we give them different pieces of training each day and put them on a schedule. They can watch a video or review a document, spend 30 minutes on their social media strategies, and an hour connecting with potential customers and Brand Partners. We offer optional coaching opportunities for anyone who is serious about building their business. I personally coach our top leaders every single week, which gives me quite a bit of visibility into what exactly they’re doing and what’s happening in the field.
What have you learned about yourself in the past year that has helped you the most?
Gaya: Personally, I think I’ve learned that I can do a lot more than I thought I could do because I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone. There were a lot of things I thought there’s no way I could do it, for example creating my own compensation plan or doing graphic design. But I realized when you are put in that situation, you have the ability to learn the skills, you just need to be able to push through the fear and the discomfort. So, from a personal standpoint, that was a big eyeopener.
As a channel, what do you think we need to do better, so we could compete with the likes of Amazon in the years to come?
Gaya: I think we need to stay focused as a channel and concentrate on our strengths. E-commerce does play a big role in the digital world. You can’t live without it, but at the same time, what do we do better than what Amazon does? We build relationships with people. Today’s consumer trusts the recommendations and testimonials of the people they know, or they can relate to. That’s our core competency and the competitive advantage. Yes, there needs to be a good e-commerce platform and technology, no doubt, but we can’t lose the personal touch. That’s why we’re in this business, and that’s where we stand out.
From the customer/brand partner experience angle, how do you stand out in a sea of other products and opportunities?
Gaya: For us, when somebody signs up, they get their kit in two days. That was intentional from the beginning. Because when somebody joins they are only in that excitement window for a short period of time. I don’t want them to have to wait a week to get their kit to experience the product and get their hands on the business tools. They are immediately plugged into the trainings, and we connect with them personally as well to welcome them to the team.
When we send out a customer order, they come wrapped with a beautiful Kalaia-branded tissue paper and a sticker on top. Our packaging is very unique and beautiful; it tells a story. From the time a customer gets their hands on that box, we are creating an experience. All those little things cost us money but, customers love these subtle touches because they make them feel special—and they are special to us. It’s not just another box that they get in the mail, it’s an experience. Same goes for our products, from the smell to the texture, everything about it is an experience they look forward to.
What are you working on right now for 2019?
Gaya: From a product standpoint, I don’t think we will touch another product category next year. Instead, we will expand our skin care line. We’re already working on a few products. We have announced our first convention that’s happening in April 2019, which will be in New Orleans. It will be our second event, but our first convention. We just barely finished a leadership retreat in September where we flew in all our top leaders for a whole weekend together, did some training, as well as recognition and celebrating what they’ve accomplished. We are very excited for what 2019 will bring.